'Joker thought Operation Big Bird too complicated for Cory'

MANILA, Philippines – Ten months after the uprising that overthrew dictator Ferdinand Marcos in 1986, President Corazon Aquino called up retired General Jose Almonte to talk about the Philippine government's failed attempt to retrieve the billions of hidden wealth stashed by the Marcoses in Swiss banks.

Aquino never got the meeting she requested. While Almonte showed up in Malacañang, then Executive Secretary Joker Arroyo prevented him from coming up to the President's office, saying the clandestine operation was "too complicated" for the first female Philippine president to understand.

The former national security adviser told this to Rappler editor-at-large Marites Dañguilan-Vitug in Endless Journey: A Memoir, which was launched on Wednesday, February 25, the 29th anniversary of the EDSA Revolution that ousted Marcos.

The clandestine operation to recover the Marcoses' ill-gotten wealth was called Operation Big Bird. It involved Almonte, banker Michael de Guzman, and members of the Presidential Commission on Good Government (PCGG).

The operation failed. A report by Representative Victorino Chavez pinned the blame on the PCGG chairman at the time, Jovito Salonga, and the Swiss lawyers hired by the PCGG.

 

In December 1986, President Aquino called Almonte to ask for a meeting. Almonte came with De Guzman on the appointed day, but Arroyo – appointed executive secretary after serving as Aquino's counsel in the 1986 snap elections – barred them from seeing the President.

'Too complicated'

In his memoir, Almonte said Arroyo met him and De Guzman at the President's office in the afternoon of December 29, 1986.

Five days earlier, Aquino had called Almonte to request a meeting with him.

"Joe, we have to be proper. We have to talk about Big Bird even if nothing happened. It’s also embarrassing to Mike de Guzman. Please come and see me with Mike," Almonte recalled Aquino as saying.

When Almonte and De Guzman arrived, Arroyo ushered them into the dining room to wait for Solicitor General Sedfrey Ordoñez.

An hour later, appointments secretary Ching Escaler came down and told Arroyo that the President was requesting Almonte and De Guzman to come up and meet her. By that time, Ordoñez was already with the group.

But Arroyo reportedly told Escaler to wait, as they were still discussing the operation. Almonte, however, refuted this, and said that Arroyo "seemed to be simply passing time with us."

Another 30 minutes passed. An irritated Escaler once again told Arroyo off.

Joker, 'pinapasabi sa iyo na ang nag-appointment dito, hindi si Joe at Mike, it’s the President. Kaya kung puwede, paakyatin mo na at late na siya sa appointment niya.” (Joker, the President wants you to know that it was she who sought this appointment, not Joe and Mike. So, please, let them come up now because she will be very late for her other appointment.)

It was at this point that Arroyo stood up and raised his voice at Escaler: “Sabihin mo sa Presidente na hindi niya maintindihan ito. Tell the President that this is too complicated for her!”

Upon hearing that, Almonte himself got angry.

"At that instance, I stood up and shouted at Joker, 'Damn you!' Then Mike and I stormed out of the Palace. Joker ran after me and as I was about to enter the car, told me, 'Joe, don’t be so hot under the collar. Be calm.' He tried to pacify me.

"'Mr. Executive Secretary, this is in the national interest!' After that, I avoided talking to my kababayan again."

Almonte was not able to talk with Aquino about the operation after that.

Years later, in 1997, Almonte confronted Arroyo about the incident at a congressional hearing on Operation Big Bird. Arroyo was then a member of the House, representing Makati.

Asked about that outburst in the President's office, Arroyo only said: "I don’t remember that incident because I was not the appointments secretary." – Rappler.com

Copies of Endless Journey: A Memoir are available at bookstores.